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First-year science graduate students enter brave new world

grad students talkingIn an effort to help the newest accomplished crop of science graduate students as they dive into their roles as “researchers exploring the unknown,” Stanford Biosciences recently held an orientation dinner warning of an uncomfortable new reality: feeling stupid. I attended the dinner and recently reported in Inside Stanford Medicine:

"The importance of succeeding in science is the ability to embrace your stupidity," said Dan Herschlag, PhD, senior associate dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, speaking to the crowd of about 120 diners in the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning & Knowledge. "And being comfortable with that adventure."

Each student was asked to read an essay that had been left on their seats. It was the “The importance of stupidity in scientific research,” by Martin Schwartz, a microbiologist at the University of Virginia. "One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time," Schwartz writes. "No doubt this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right."

"If we don’t feel stupid that means we’re not really trying," he adds.

The 126 new students, who come from 19 countries and 82 undergraduate institutions, represent a wide variety of scientific disciplines and have already made great accomplishments in their fields. And yet, in chatting with several of the students, I learned it wasn't uncommon for them to find themselves floundering a bit in a sea of insecurity. Don't worry if you don't feel like you like you belong, the faculty told them; the future will be challenging, but you're definitely prepared.

Theresa Logan, who is entering the neurosciences program, told me it was a relief to hear the faculty talk about the "imposter syndrome" - the hidden belief that you aren’t supposed to be here among all these smart people. "Some of us apparently are thinking ‘Why did they ever accept me? It must be a mistake.’ It’s nice to know I wasn’t the only person who felt that way," she said.

Previously: Stanford’s largest medical class ever starts school and No imposters here: Stanford grad students reassured as they begin school
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

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